The American Shakespeare Center’s Blackfriars Playhouse in Staunton, Virginia, requires a day trip of more than a hundred miles from Northern Virginia, but it is well worth the experience! Here one may see Shakespeare performed as it was intended. Blackfriars is not a recreation of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, but rather of Blackfriars Theatre, the other major Elizabethan theatre of note, and one with which Shakespeare was also associated.
While the modern Blackfriars Playhouse in Staunton harks back to Elizabethan staging practices, the venue is open to experimentation. Just such a case is the current staging of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” here renamed “Midsummer 90.” It is so called not because it takes place in 1990, but rather because the production squeezes a three-hour-plus play into only 90 minutes! In order to fully appreciate the difficulty of this approach, it might be worthwhile to look first at the complexity of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” in its three – arguably four — plots, with each plot being connected by the theme of love. One plot is in the real world: Duke Theseus and his bride Hippolyta are soon to be married, but they are presented with a problem to resolve. They themselves are getting along well together, yet the affections of the Athenian youth Demetrius have swayed from his intended, Helena, to her sometimes-best friend, Hermia. Hermia, in turn, is herself in love with a young man named Lysander, and he is in love with her.
The second plot involves a fantasy in the Land of Fairy, where the mischievous sprite Puck is enmeshed in an argument between the king and queen of the fairies, Oberon and Titania. In the third plot, several tradesmen (including the famous comic anti-hero Nick Bottom) try amusingly to stage the traditional love tragedy “Pyramus and Thisby;” the latter play-within-a-play perhaps provides yet a fourth plot! These subplots all come together in a dream-like forest on a midsummer’s night, giving the play its title.
Director Nathan Winkelstein, and really any director undertaking such a drastic reduction of the play’s length, must decide which plot points to emphasize. Here the focus is decidedly upon the tradesmen and their comedic attempt to play out “Pyarmus and Thisby” before Duke Theseus, Hippolyta, and their lovelorn friends. Indeed, in “Midsummer 90,” Bottom’s histrionic performance as the doomed Pyramus is expanded, overlapping into other plays being concurrently staged at Blackfriars! In his death throes as Pyramus, Bottom has an audience member stab him so he can say, à la Julius Caesar, “Et tu Brute?” Following this, he then calls for an asp, so that he can also die Cleopatra-like! This sequence and indeed the whole play are given a delightful, frenetic quality. It is a very playful performance intended to appeal to families, reminiscent of a commedia d’arte for younger audience members. Thus, this shortened length and an earlier-than-usual start time (7:00pm rather than the usual 7:30pm). Note: leave the Washington area before rush hour to make it on time!
This version of “A Midsumer Night’s Dream” is innovative in other ways as well. For example, the fairies are not the usual dainty Romantic-era fay folk of “The Nutcracker” or director Max Rhinehart’s beautiful gossamer creatures from the classic film version of this play. Rather, they are portrayed as large mandrake-like plants! Other delightful and unexpected stagings abound, with this somewhat madcap approach making the play both accessible and fresh.
Topher Embrey is excellent as a silly yet serious Bottom, Puck is played with delicious malevolence by Maddie Calais, Andrea Bellamore is stunning as Titania, and “frenemies” Hermia and Helena, depicted by Sara Linares and Mia Wurgaft respectively, will make audience members remember lines such as “my nails can reach unto thine eyes” as in no other version!
One of the most remarkable aspects of Blackfriars Playhouse is the “universal lighting,” the same as employed during Shakespeare’s era; here the drama is enacted on stage in a fully lit auditorium, allowing the actors and audience to see each other clearly. The experience takes a bit of time to get used to! Once accustomed to the approach, however, audience members find they engage with the show in a unique way. Given that the cast, as in Shakespeare’s time, uses relatively few props, the audience can at times find itself supplying, or even becoming, props in the show.
“Midsummer 90,” despite its title, actually runs past summer, until September 29. This reviewer recommends it highly for its excellent acting, innovative staging, engaging direction, and, above all, its humor! Those preferring a slightly more traditional production, but who would nonetheless enjoy seeing what Blackfriars Playhouse and the American Shakespeare Center in Staunton have to offer, might choose instead the performance on the evening of September 7; here the same company will perform a more traditional full-length version of the play. The concurrent productions of “Julius Caesar,” “Antony and Cleopatra,” and “Caesar and Cleopatra” (the last not by Shakespeare but by George Bernard Shaw) also appear throughout the current Blackfriars season, which ends in late November.
“Midsummer 90” runs through September 29, 2019, at the Blackfriars Playhouse, located at 10 South Market Street, Staunton, VA 24401. Running time is about 90 minutes. For more information, please visit https://americanshakespearecenter.com/.